Facebook Twitter



Nicaraguan refugees are arriving in South Florida at a pace reminiscent of the Mariel sealift in 1980, when 125,000 Cubans hit the shores over a five-month period.

The scene in 1980: Some 700 Mariel Cubans were temporarily housed at the Orange Bowl before being moved to a "tent city" underneath an Interstate 95 overpass. At one point, as many as 1,200 Cubans crowded into 40 tents.Now Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium, the spring home of the Baltimore Orioles, has become the winter home of Nicaraguans who fled their war-torn Central American nation in hopes of a better life.

Late this week, 275 Nicaraguans were housed at the stadium, with more arriving daily, many coming across from Mexico and traveling east.

Conny Duarte, secretary of the Committee of Poor Nicaraguans in Exile, which is helping city workers run the shelter, estimated that number could nearly double by the end of the month.

"We are strapped to the max," said Bobby Bernal, administrative assistant to Dade County's manager and refugee coordinator. "Immigration is a federal responsibility. But we can't turn our backs."

About 70 percent of the 200 asylum applications received daily at the Miami office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service are from Nicaraguans, said INS district director Perry Rivkind. Some 35,000 to 40,000 Nicaraguans have applied here for asylum over the past year, he said.

The flood can be attributed to the collapse of the economy as well as the foundering rebel movement against the Sandinistas.

While the total has been spread out over a longer period, the impact of the refugees has been compared to the exodus of Cubans from the port of Mariel in the 1980 "Freedom Flotilla."

"It's going to come to a point when we'll look at the federal government and say, `When is it going to end? When can we see a slowdown in this problem?"' Bernal said. "If the government doesn't wish to curtail this, then provide us with some dollars."

Prompted by a backlog of asylum applications in Miami, Los Angeles and Harlingen, Texas, INS plans to beef up review teams to process petitions, and it has been announced that Nicaraguans will no longer automatically receive authorization to work while their cases are pending.

But the refugees at the stadium were lucky. They are expected to receive work permits within days.

Despite the problems, Mayor Xavier Suarez says he hasn't become overly worried about the city's ability to absorb the latest wave of refugees.

"We're obviously rolling with the punches here," he said. "This is a pretty resilient community."